When it rains, it pours…
This morning, I was searching for new and soon-to-be-released travel books on Amazon in order to present timely book reviews on this blog, and I came across Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm. Perfect, I thought, not released yet. I can be one of the first to get it and review it. So I added it to my cart. I even clicked on the author’s name to see what else he had written. Several books, including some Lonely Planet guidebooks. OK, a credible writer, I suppose.
During lunch, I caught up on my blog reading, and I came across a new article by Eva Holland on Brave New Traveler about this book and its author. And just in time. Apparently, Mr. Kohnstamm fabricated several parts of his Lonely Planet Columbia guidebook. In fact, he never even went to Columbia! He acquired most of the information from a girl he was dating who had an internship at the Columbian consulate.
In addition, he plagiarized parts of the book, and he had accepted freebies at other times while on the road. Both of these are clear violations of Lonely Planet policy, but since plagiarism and fabricating books have been touchy issues lately (just ask Oprah), I’m curious what Lonely Planet will say about this.
To be honest, my first reaction was more irritation than anger, and despite the situation, I kept the book in my cart. But the more I read Eva’s article, especially this part:
Kohnstamm has done several things at once here:
1. seriously undermined the credibility of an enormous publishing house that - in my opinion, anyway - does some pretty good work in the world
2. re-proven in the minds of many editors that travel writers as a group are not to be taken seriously - and hey, guess what, it doesn’t benefit any of us in the long run to be considered a bunch of plagiarizing hacks
3. taken opportunities away from other young writers who might have actually been willing to do the job they were paid for
4. and done it all deliberately, in the name of his own self-enrichment. Nice guy, right?
it began bothering me, a guidebook-writer-in-training who hopes to write at least one guidebook down the line. Frankly, I know guidebook writing is a sad gig to begin with: low pay, long hours, and not nearly enough time to enjoy the places you’re writing about. And after reading points #2 and #3, I dropped the book from my cart. Maybe I’ll wait to buy a used copy. Maybe I won’t bother to read it at all. After all, how can I know that this book isn’t just another fabrication as well?
To be honest, any bit of travel writing is subject to slight fabrications, alterations, and just honest mistakes. Sometimes notes are incomplete or misinterpreted. Most of my favorite travel writers recall dialogue I know can’t be a verbatim transcription or describe a scene in amazing detail I know must be an exaggeration. But most honest authors try their best to recall a scene as accurately as possible, or at least as true to the spirit of the moment. (At least I hope they do.)
Ironically, the only other book in my cart was The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer, perhaps the polar opposite of Mr. Kohnstamm. I recommend forgoing Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? and getting something—anything—by Pico. Or any decent travel writer. (More recommended authors to follow in upcoming posts.)
Damn, I really thought I’d be one of the first people to know about the book. Thanks to Eva for the news!
Here’s the Gadling post that Eva links to:
and the Reuters news article the above article links to:
and a few other relevant Gadling articles: